Monday, February 17, 2020

Phantom Memories and the Tragic Downfall of "Três Montanhas"

The task I set myself in building out my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere, was monumental. I needed to explain what the food's like, what to order, and how to eat in pretty much every common immigrant cuisine; 75 for now  (it's mostly for "ethnic" eating here at home, but also works well abroad). If science ever allows us to download our mind's contents into a database, I already know what that will feel like. I couldn't quell a nagging thought: Kill me now, for I am redundant. Forty years of know-how was juiced out of me and made freely available to anyone with $4.99 (we should have charged $300. Underpricing was a big part of the problem. Nobody seems to grok exactly what this thing was or what it did - except customers, who've exclusively rated it 5 stars).

I had to opt out of some extremes. It couldn't become a full-fledged encyclopedia of world food, because a firehose approach wouldn't provide the practical in-restaurant advice I wanted to offer - the sort of life-line help friends often request via text message. Nor could I drill down to lots of sub-regions. The app does divide regions of Italy, India, France, Mexico and China, but only because it needed to do so to be useful. Further division would force users to identify the exact region of their restaurant, ruining the newbie-friendliness (the app's surprisingly newbie friendly while also catnip for seasoned vets).

I also constrained mostly to can't-miss dishes. Millions know and love samosas, pad Thai, and sushi, but it's crazy that Bengali mishti doi, Russian chebureki, Brazilian pao de queijo, Burmese shway gee mote, and Egyptian eggah are not equally craved. To try them is to love them, and the app's like a magic key unlocking the whole world‘s rapture.

I did, however, hold on to one strict and ambitious edict: don't screw up. No flagrant mistakes. I knew readers would head straight to their own family's nationality to gauge whether the app's legit, and while, per above, it will necessarily seem incomplete, it can't seem unsavvy. It needed a consistent insider's view, rather than the standard aspergery gringo foodie treatment. We wanted Ethiopians and Cambodians to assume we had paisanos on staff. We needed to do justice to all these cuisines we so love, which meant: no big blunders. No naiveté. You may argue with what's been included/excluded, and your family might make tamales differently. Plus there are, alas, surely hundreds of minor errata. But no big fat ones. No shark-jumping.

The big problem is that I picked up my food knowledge on the fly. This helped me learn to eat like an insider (insiders just eat, they don't think about it, taxonomize it, poke at it with a pointer, or fetishize it into a stamp on Instagram), but the problem with empirical knowledge is - as I discovered to my horror while pushing every last speck through a verification grinder - that 5% of my knowledge was skull-crushingly wrong all along.

Early drafts included a dozen dishes that don't exist. Some I'd concocted mentally - phantom memories of hallucinated meals - and some were accurate recollections of restaurant contrivances bullshittedly claimed to be authentic. Some of these dishes had been foundational for me, and helped define my view of a cuisine. I confess with mortification that I've referred to some in my (professional) writing. But none of them googled because, jesuschrist, they don't exist. Finding and extracting fake foods, false memories, and general misapprehensions was a fraught process - literally and figuratively akin to brain surgery.

Wait, I'd keep asking myself. Do I know FOR A FACT that Thai people eat noodles with chopsticks? Or that Tibetan soup is called (much to a musician's delight) "thang"? Or that Koreans may quietly add rice to their soup at the table despite the nominal taboo? How do I know anything in my head is rigorously right? The fact that I'm considered an expert only makes it more nauseating.

So, anyway, this just happened:

I listed for a Portuguese person the cities I've performed in in Portugal. And it turns out that one of the major ones, Três Montanhas, doesn't exist. Never existed. Mind you, this was no minor data point. The locality had, for decades, occupied a prominent place in my mental map of Portugal. Yet there IS NO "TRÊS MONTANHAS". Nothing even close to that name. My friend helpfully ventured that I'd simply been in a place near three mountains.

No. The Três Montanhas I know - in the universe I live in - is a pillar of northern Portugal, especially its cuisine. I'd absorbed the style they cook there, spending hours at restaurant tables being explained the history and fine points of it all while course after delicious course emerged, clearly misunderstanding the Portuguese (or the Portuguese-accented English). I don't remember who I was with, so I have no one to ask. Who could possibly advise me about a place that's not a place? How does one find GPS coordinates for Shangri-La?

If there's no "Três Montanhas", then nothing in my life makes a lick of sense. All is open to question. I find myself (per my open letter to Bernie supporters) feeling like a blotchy pink mole rat, blinking confusedly. 

I'm in epistemological crisis, especially after pondering how one can ever declare a conclusion verified when (per here) "a greater clarity may appear in the very next microsecond, leaving you aware of how ridiculously incomplete or wrong you'd been." 

Update: thank you, Jesus

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